There was a spirit of optimism at the Clean Energy Summit last week because the industry is booming and there’s money being made.
Even without the absence of government direction the pendulum had swung in favour of wind and solar delegates said.
“It was very upbeat because everyone’s making money,” The Customer Advocate principle consultant Mike Swanston told The Fifth Estate, “even though there’s largely a lack of direction from the federal government.”
A big reason was the rise in the wholesale energy prices. Wind and solar projects were making good returns and becoming more competitive and more attractive as investment propositions.
“The pendulum has swung” from renewables being primarily about rooftop solar and distributed renewable to lot more talk about utility-scale projects.
Mr Swanston said there was also a “fair bit of talk” at the summit about storage.
One of the challenges with this technology is “how do you refine the barbecue conversation with customers?”
ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht in his address said that ARENA’s job now was not to promote renewables: that job has been completed.
The new job for the agency was to make utility-scale renewables “firm and dispatchable”, and the key to that was big scale storage and batteries.
Rooftop is still hot but micro-grids are gaining ground
Rooftop-scale was still a topic for discussion, but mainly in the context of micro-grids.
“They are starting to prove themselves as sensible greenfield solutions for consumer energy.”
West Australian sustainability champion Jemma Green gave a presentation on the microgrid topic, showcasing the multiple occupancy project in Western Australia that operates as a microgrid.
Mr Swanston said that where grid energy pricing goes in the next few years will determine consumers’ attitudes toward having their own distributed energy generation.
Another aspect of the sector that was very much on show was the tech space, which had “exploded”.
While this has a “gee whizz” aspect for an engineer such as himself, the key in terms of tech offerings will be ensuring they are reliable and affordable for the average consumer.
There’s a double edge sword if prices are falling too fast
There is a double-edged sword, however, to the rapid maturing of technology and the downward shift of prices for storage and PV.
Consumers may be asking themselves “should I get in now or wait six months or a year?”
They may be hesitant in case they invest in technology that rapidly becomes redundant, or pay more as an early adopter compared to those buying later when demand and supply sees prices fall.
Consumers are looking at three factors in making decisions, he said: price, reliability and whether the technology gives them choices and flexibility.
Overall, renewables are crossing from being blue-sky or developmental to being concrete commercial offerings.
Solar PV can now be considered a mature technology. Batteries and software are “not quite there”, but are very close.
All the cleverness is in the software
“All the cleverness now [in solar and storage] is in the software.”
Rising power prices were another recurring theme at the summit.
Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton said rising power prices are a huge concern across the country.
At the same time, the business sector is increasingly frustrated about the inability of politicians to come together on energy and climate to provide the necessary stability for new investment to fix the issue.
“We have a business sector which is increasingly recognising the economic opportunities provided by clean energy, both in meeting their own energy needs and in building multi-million dollar wind and solar projects across the country,” Mr Thornton said.
“The energy transition towards cleaner energy is underway, but we are still missing policy beyond 2020 which would provide businesses with confidence to invest their money. There are jobs going begging, economic benefits being wasted and power prices spiralling out of control.”
The inability to agree on a long-term policy is driving up energy costs, he said.
“The only thing that is helping is the $8 billion worth of large renewable energy projects that are either under construction or will start in 2017.
“This new generation will help to push down the cost of power, but this level of new investment is unlikely to continue beyond 2020 without a clear policy roadmap.”
The RET has been instrumental in terms of providing incentives for both large projects and for households and business to install renewable energy, he said.
Managing director of Apogee Energy, Warwick Forster, said that at the panel he was on, there were a lot of people feeling uncertainty.
The topic was the large scale generation certificate price forecasts and the future prices in the wholesale energy markets.
Lack of certainty on the future of LGCs has plagued the sector for some time, he said.
There’s a “bit of a question” about what sort of policies we may see.
Currently the prices of LCGs are high, but “there’s a significant risk” with the market for them if the governments can’t get together.
The lack of certainty is also making it very difficult to get power purchase agreements for large-scale projects, Mr Forster said.
“The transition to renewable is positive but lack of certainty makes it a difficulty.”
Taryn Lane on the Sapphire Wind Farm and enhancing social outcomes
Taryn Lane, director of Akin Consulting, gave two presentations.
One showcased the ongoing development of a community investment vehicle for the proposed Sapphire Wind Farm in New England.
The project team are in the process of testing ideas with the local community, she said.
Another presentation was on early findings of research she is undertaking on enhancing social outcomes in wind developments. The research is being funded by the Clean Energy Council and the Wind Directorate.
Ms Lane said the atmosphere at this year’s summit was very different to a few years ago. There’s a sense of momentum in the sector.
However, it needs the right policy support to roll things out quickly.
One of the key political messages coming out was a call for tripartite energy policy.
The pollies were there but they need to hold hands
While deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, Opposition leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale were all in attendance and gave speeches – there were no concrete cross-party promises made.
On the tech front, Ms Lane was hearing a lot of excitement around hybrid systems – small-scale renewables used in combination with the grid.
Generally, there’s a lot of innovation happening in the clean energy space, she said.
“There is also a lot of focus on new projects and on energy security.”
Another dialogue occurring at the summit was about appreciating the existing generators, and how to protect them as systems change into the future.
Lack of clarity around what will happen with LGCs is not helping.
“Especially for projects that want to go merchant and be on the spot market, there needs to be some transition process so they are not exposed,” Ms Lane said.
In a session on community engagement, it was clear there was a lot of diversity in the space and ways of approaching engagement.
The big theme was how to create a “legacy project” in the community, and innovative ways to partner with the community for a range of positive developmental outcomes.
Large-scale projects have the potential to create a significant change in communities if they take a long-term approach, Ms Lane said.